A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Title: American Slavery Speech By: Frederick Douglass Date: July 4, 1852 Location: Rochester, NY Occasion: Independence Day Celebration
An escaped slave, Douglass left America, then returned to purchase his freedom so he could speak out publicly against slavery, without fear of being returned to bondage under the fugitive slave act. He certainly spoke out this Independence Day, almost nine years before the start of the Civil War.
He begins by involving his audience immediately: “Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?” This simple opening sentence is effective on so many levels. By addressing his “fellow citizens,” he not only creates a shared identification, but establishes the basis on which his entire speech will rest - that he, and they, share the equal station of citizenship.
His next two words, “pardon me,” is a phrase designed to grab the attention of his listeners. “Pardon you?”, they would almost certainly be asking themselves, “Why do we need to pardon you?” In his first four words, Douglass has grabbed his listeners’ attention. He reinforces that by asking: “why am I called upon to speak here today?”
Now that he has their attention, he intends to cast cold water on their celebration. His point - The birth of American freedom, did not bring freedom to all Americans.
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!”, he declares. A marvelous turn of phrase, that. It references the old phrase “beyond the pale,” which means something or someone operating outside agreed standards of decency. But it’s also a thinly-veiled reference to the fact that the only difference between those who have reason to celebrate this day, and those who don’t, is the degree of their skin pigmentation. Were he paler, it would make an immeasurable difference in his freedom to participate in this festive occasion.
He then launches into the point he wants his audience to hear: the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by the founders to his listeners, is not shared by the millions still held in chains. He announces that he sees this holiday from a different perspective, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view.”
His audience would have known that he shares this perspective because it is one he has experienced personally, something they have not.
It is not a pleasant speech, but it is undeniably powerful. “I will use the severest language I can command,” he promises. He does not disappoint.
He then proceeds to examine the arguments used to justify slavery, and dispenses with each in neat fashion.
Is the slave a man? “That point is conceded already,” he notes. He points to southern laws which prohibit teaching slaves to read and write. Such statutes are not needed for dogs or cattle or any of the other animal species extant.
Members of his race engage in all the professions other races do, and live in traditional family units. And above all, they engage in “confessing and worshipping the Christian God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave.” This argument indeed is above all. For, while an animal may have a concept of mortality, it does not ask if there is an after-life, or how the world came to be. This ability, only humans possess.
Then he poses the rhetorical question - is a man entitled to liberty? It’s a question which has been already answered for him. It is, in fact, the entire premise of the document his audience has gathered to celebrate. The Declaration of Independence itself proclaims men - “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Who can celebrate such a document, and simultaneously dispute its basic premise?
His next to last paragraph is a triumph of the orator’s art:
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”
His final verdict on an American nation which continues to sanction slavery is damning: in “shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
This is a wonderful speech, about a not-so-wonderful time in our history. That it belongs in Time’s Top Ten Speeches is no more subject to dispute, than the premise that all humans are entitled to liberty.
Text Posted:The History Place Length Words: 1817
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.